Washington: A small satellite, named 'Twinkle,' is set to give radical new insights into the chemistry, formation and evolution of planets orbiting other stars.
A team of scientists and engineers from University College London (UCL) and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has announced plans for Twinkle's fast-track mission, which will be launched within four years, to unveil exoplanet atmospheres.
Lead scientist Giovanna Tinetti said that Twinkle is a very ambitious mission and nearly two thousand exoplanets, that is, planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, have been discovered to date, but they know very little about these alien worlds.
Tinetti added that they can measure their mass, density and distance from their star, from which they can deduce that that some are freezing cold, some are so hot that they have molten surfaces, some are vast balls of gas, like Jupiter, or small and rocky, like Earth, but beyond that, they just don't know.
Tinetti noted that Twinkle will be the first mission dedicated to analysing exoplanets atmospheres and will give them a completely new picture of what these worlds are really like.
Twinkle will analyse at least 100 exoplanets in the Milky Way. Its infrared spectrograph will enable observations of a wide range of planet types including super-Earths (rocky planets 1-10 times the mass of Earth) and hot-Jupiters (gas giants orbiting very close to their suns). Some of the target planets are orbiting stars similar to our Sun and some are orbiting cooler red-dwarfs. For the largest planets orbiting bright stars, Twinkle will even be able to produce maps of clouds and temperature.
Twinkle will be launched into a polar low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft will be built to operate for a minimum of three years, with the possibility of an extended lifetime of five years or more.
Twinkle is a unique chance for the UK to build on this and take the world lead in understanding exoplanet science, as well as to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, said Prof Jonathan Tennyson, senior advisor for the Twinkle mission.